Thursday, August 12, 2004

The separation of church and state in an ever-changing society will always be a complicated matter, and has been ever since the idea was new.

The line Thomas Jefferson drew between the two — in his famous letter to the Baptists of Danbury — has shifted over the years, but it has held. The separation of church and state remains one of the most universally accepted principles of American government, thank God.

Now a Baptist minister in little ol’ Springdale, Ark., has been accused of crossing the line. How did he get into trouble? Well, it seems that over the years a vague and mischievous distinction has been drawn between politics and partisan politics in the law — that is, churches may address political issues but not explicitly endorse a party or its candidate if they want to keep their tax-exempt status.

The fancy Latin phrase for this arrangement is a modus vivendi — a deal both sides can live with. The pastor of Springdale’s First Baptist Church observed the formal rule: He didn’t actually say the Forbidden Words: Vote for George W. Bush. Nor, for that matter, did he urge his congregation to vote for any candidate on the ballot — not by name.

Still, he did everything but, like talking about abortion and values and flashing a big picture of the president on a screen. And only a small one of John Kerry. Discrimination.

If what Ronnie Floyd did is a violation of federal regulations, what do we do with any other preacher/politician who goes right down a party platform plank by plank in one of his sermons/stump speeches without actually using the name Bush or Kerry, or the labels Republican or Democrat?

Lord knows I’ve heard many a liberal sermon in my time that made it clear the Democratic candidate was the Lord’s anointed, even if it didn’t mention his name.

If a minister insists on delivering partisan sermons, shouldn’t that be his congregants’ problem, God help ‘em, and not the government’s? Leave him to Heaven, not the Internal Revenue Service.

But a group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State has ratted on the Reverend, firing off a letter to the IRS claiming his church violated federal regulations for a tax-exempt group by taking part in partisan politics. (When government gets in the business of policing sermons, you know something is amiss in America.)

My strictly extralegal and completely unauthoritative opinion is that even a modest restriction on a minister’s freedom of speech — no endorsements allowed — violates the spirit if not the letter of the First Amendment. It runs counter to the Constitution’s guarantee of both freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

Nor does making a federal case of a minister’s sermon respect the First Amendment’s finely balanced words barring an establishment of religion or any law prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

After all, why does the government refrain from taxing churches in the first place? In order to respect their independence, their separation from the state.

As the greatest chief justice in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court put it, the power to tax is the power to destroy. Maybe the government isn’t being asked to destroy a church in this case, but it is certainly being asked to bully it.

And if one church’s tax-exempt status can be challenged because its minister said something the IRS doesn’t approve of, while other churches keep theirs because their ministers haven’t offended Caesar, how does that differ from the government’s favoring one church over another, that is, from an establishment of religion?

A church now must to toe the line the government has laid down to get its tax exemption. If it doesn’t, and allows its minister to preach what he — or she — wants, that church may find itself taxed. Isn’t this exactly what the First Amendment was designed to prevent?

It has taken a long time to establish a simple no-endorsement rule that both church and state can live with. Start expanding it to a ban on indirect, inferred, or just we-can-tell-what-he-meant endorsements, and we’re in uncharted waters. We will have gone from modus vivendi to terra incognita, where the law usually winds up when it’s pushed beyond reason and tolerance.

Why disrupt the peace we have all enjoyed for so long, no matter our politics/religion? Instead of obscure debates over the subtext of a minister’s sermon, and whether an endorsement can be deduced from his — or her — words, why not just let preachers preach? Why not live and let live? That’s a pretty good rule, too.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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